by Raizel Liebler
John Palfrey‘s BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google (2015) is a call to arms for the future of libraries — and their value. Immensely readable, this book charts where libraries were, where they are now, and where they are and should be. I truly loved this book and felt inspired by it — but I also fear that librarians will view this book as another “libraries are great!” boosterism solely rather than as primarily as an exemplar of a choice — evolve or die.
This book doesn’t reject the value of for-profit information sources, like Amazon or Google, but it does contextualize them: they exist to make money, not to make information available to the public regardless of pay. And what that means is that there is still a role for libraries — to share and explain information of value to the public even if it does not make anyone money.
Palfrey has experience as a library director — of the Harvard Law Library. Therefore, he spends time talking specifically about the future of law libraries, and mentioning both the beautiful reading room of the Harvard Law Library (traditional!) and the finals therapy dog (new way to look at libraries!). But much more of the book is focused more generally on libraries, library services, and librarians. He sees libraries and librarians as leaders in information literacy, both for present users and making available knowledge for the future, through digitizing and archiving born-digital and originally print materials.
Palfrey sees libraries both as physical places and as spaces of information. He recognizes that there is a tension between seeing a library as a locale for the stacks and a community center, and suggests that moving towards digitization and collaboration will allow for more of both — the keeping sacred of the past while serving the immediate needs of the present. His most challenging call is for more collaboration between librarians and libraries to better serve the public, preserve culture, and make more information accessible. The book calls for innovation, but within the context of rejiggering resources within institutional structures for all to be more together than alone.
Considering Palfrey’s background is law, it isn’t surprising that there is an entire chapter dedicated to both copyright and privacy. He explains why librarians have such an issue with licensing materials rather than buying them, despite publishers’ push to move to this rental-style model — and why expanding the first sale doctrine is important for the future of libraries.
On a personal note, this book helped to reinforce the ideas I have for making obscure, but important sources truly available to the public is needed — and needs to be done. In remarking about his experience as Harvard Law Library director, he remarks on how publishers come to the library for older versions of their works. This proves both the value of first sale — and how placing value only on that with present monetary value limits the preservation of culture for the future.
Summary: Highly recommended — not only for the librarian in your life, but even more so for all that think that corporations can solve all problems regarding information access.